Wounded by a deep divide between their two cultures

April 9, 2004

Tension between the values prized at home and those prized at school can lead Asian girls in Britain to harm themselves. Paul Ghuman says we can do more to help them

The ban on girls wearing the hijab at school has aroused much controversy - and some death threats - in France, but in Britain, despite attempts by a secondary school in Luton to follow the French example, attempts have been made to accommodate the traditions of other cultures within the education system. For the political philosopher Bhikhu Parekh, the wearing of the hijab in western society is "a highly complex autonomous act" that means that its wearers seek "both to remain within their tradition and to challenge it, to accept the cultural inequality and to create a space for equality".

This need to straddle the two cultures - the values and traditions of school versus those of home - is an area of increasing interest for academics studying second and third-generation Asian girls from the Indian sub-continent. Many Asian girls, especially those whose parents come from rural areas, find this difficult. Some Sikh girls I interviewed for my book on teenagers growing up in western societies summed up the problem. They demanded "more freedom": "We want our lifestyles," they said, "but we don't want a bad reputation and we don't want to shame our mothers and fathers... it's just too much pressure; it's hard because we can't be ourselves." They also felt that their schools did not always understand their position.

Much research on Asian girls has focused on the home-society split - concerns about autonomy, parents' views on dating, dress codes and the favouring of boys over girls as well as views that some teachers are prejudiced or have negative stereotypes.

Often, all these issues are interlinked in that many Asian parents feel strongly that their daughters carry the izzat (honour) and the family traditions and that they need protection and extra care in their schooling and socialisation - hence they are treated differently from their male siblings on issues such as dating, household responsibilities and leisure activities. The collective nature of the Asian family encourages interdependence, whereas schools in the West emphasise individualism and personal autonomy. Many Asian youngsters greatly value familial closeness and are critical of the perceived lack of closeness of their non-Asian peers.

At the same time, there is much evidence that Asian and black people in Britain face racial discrimination in employment, housing, the National Health Service and other areas of life. Regrettably, despite some 30 years of public education and awareness, there remain some Eurocentric teachers who consider the cultural values of others to be inferior or, at best, exotic. In Eastern Values, Western Milieu: Identities and Aspirations of Adolescent British Muslim Girls , Tehmina Basit, a lecturer in education at Leicester University, talks of how teachers can misunderstand Asian girls' respectfulness as "shyness or submissiveness", their protectiveness as "oppression" and their modesty as "traditionalism". Other researchers have spoken about how teachers might verbally express a respect for Islam or Asian cultures but through their body language or comments to other staff demonstrate their dislike of practices such as fasting or being dressed when swimming.

Basit's view is that "the teachers' job is to impart knowledge, not to anglicise the girls". My research in Australia, England and the US confirms that many Asian parents hold this view. But western schoolteachers tend to perceive this view as too narrow and instrumental. They aim instead to educate the "whole" child. The result is that there is still a degree of misunderstanding between Asian parents and teachers about the function and role of education. Nevertheless, Asian parents and western schools share many values, such as high academic achievement, self-discipline and respect for authority.

In terms of day-to-day issues, many Muslim and some Sikh parents express concern about mixed classes and communal showers in physical education. Such mismatches of values and customs between home and school place psychological strains on Asian children, especially girls, over and above those experienced by their white counterparts. This can lead to tension and anxiety. Asian girls report higher levels of depression than their male counterparts - even though research shows that Asian girls gain higher school grades than Asian boys, and that Indian girls are among the best achievers.

Most Asian girls learn to cope reasonably successfully with the demands of "two cultures", but a few suffer from psychosomatic illnesses resulting in eating disorders (bulimia, anorexia and binge eating), severe anxiety and depression. Some researchers have noted higher than average levels of psychiatric illness in Asian girls. In a recent article in the journal Feminism , Anita Bhardwaj concludes from her review of research findings that Asian girls and women are "three times more vulnerable to suicide and self-harm than their non-Asian counterparts". The term self-harm includes overdosing, eating disorders, cutting and burning. Bhardwaj says cultural beliefs ( izzat and sharm , or shame) act as double-edged swords in that they "persistently legitimise gender violence and oppression and further silence women... (for fear of) bringing shame and dishonour to the family".

Bhardwaj's research in Newham, East London, revealed many disturbing cases of self-harm. One 16-year-old girl explained why she had harmed herself: "I don't know, at the time I was just messing up inside. If I hadn't done anything, I think I would have just blown up. It's like your head was full of so much, you wanted something to calm you down and if I hadn't done that, I would have just gone mad."

The problems lie in community demands and pressures on Asian girls and women as well as in the "encountered" racism of British society, Bhardwaj says. She recommends more awareness training for health and education staff dealing with such cases. Bhardwaj is only too well aware of the danger of stereotyping Asian girls and women as "victims", but she argues that it is only just to seek help and support where it is badly needed.

A recent study (by Dinesh Bhugra and Kamaldeep Bhui of 266 13-year-olds in East London) shows the extent of eating disorders among Asian teenagers. It found that Asians were much more likely than whites, blacks or other non-Asians to suffer from bulimia and that Asian girls were more likely to suffer from delayed menstruation. The researchers say this "indicates that there is an element of pathology that veers towards eating disorders".

Another study, conducted by Steve Kingsbury in the mid-1990s, found that while white girls were three times more likely to overdose on prescribed drugs than boys, Asian girls were 12 times as likely to overdose as Asian boys. Kingsbury said that although Asians were not as likely to attempt suicide as other groups, they showed higher rates of depression and hopelessness.

It must be stressed, however, that there have been no large-scale studies (clinical nor psychological) that demonstrate conclusively that Asian girls are more prone to suffer from psychiatric and psychological ailments than their white counterparts. Nevertheless, we should take note of the trends and offer counselling and other forms of support to help Asian girls deal with their anxieties and personal worries.

Also, I concur wholeheartedly with a salient recommendation of the 2002 Parekh report on the future of multi-ethnic Britain: "...issues of race equality and cultural diversity (should) be properly covered in initial teacher training, and be mandatory in all major programmes of management development for head teachers and deputy heads". And prominent researchers, such as Sally Tomlinson, emeritus professor of education at Goldsmiths College, University of London, argue that schools and authorities need to attend more closely to the perceptions, experiences and outlooks of Asian and black communities.

In my view, appointing home-school link teachers/workers with relevant background and experience would be of great value in bringing better understanding between home and school.

Another potential bridge between home and school life could be interracial marriages. The children of such couples have not received due methodical attention from researchers and scholars. It is important to study children and young people of dual cultural heritage, as they could be bridge-builders between the host society and new citizens/immigrants.

Paul Ghuman is professor and head of education at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. His book Double Loyalties: South Asian Adolescents in the West is published by University of Wales Press, £14.99.

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